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Plaza de la Masa

Next to a Raiders game, the Alameda Swap Meet may be the most overwhelming place you can visit on a Sunday afternoon, an immense converted factory complex south of downtown swarming with people, stuffed with hundreds of stalls selling everything from sea-turtle extract to straw ranchero hats, fluffy white first-communion dresses to the latest in pin-striped gangsta wear, and alive with the racket of two-dozen pumped CD players blasting trumpet-bright norteno hits. You are reminded that the Mexican population of Los Angeles is second only to that of Mexico City itself.

The crush to get into the parking lot can sometimes back up Alameda for as much as a mile, and the streets teem with trucks selling tacos, or fresh mackerel, or bootleg rap cassettes, or a queer, sweet drink called lechugilla that is is sold in plastic packets that resemble silicon implants.

Outside at the swap meet, in a vast sort of asphalt plaza that separates the two main buildings, the fences are decorated with Mexican flags and portraits of Mexican revolutionaries. Small children totter about clutching cotton candy and ears of roasted corn. Sometimes a DJ presides over hundreds of couples executing complicated cowboy steps. It’s a vast fiesta every weekend of the year.

Around the perimeter of the plaza and stretching back along an arcade to the southernmost parking lot is a bewildering succession of food stalls that perfume the air with grilled meat, sputtering oil and a certain high note of stickiness--every kind of Mexican food you could possibly walk around with, and a few that are destined to land straight on your shoes.

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The big food stall under the awning closest to the main building is a full-on Mexican restaurant without the walls, featuring grilled chicken, carne asada and pretty good steam-table dishes: chile verde , chicken mole and a really good, spicy goat-meat stew that’s the color of fresh blood. The big awning at the other end shades a Salvadoran stall where a woman pats pupusas one after the other, frying them hard and stacking them up in front of her. The pupusas are fantastic, if not the subtlest version--ready to be mounded with the spicy cabbage slaw called curtido and moistened with a fiery brick-red smoked-chile sauce that is among the best four or five salsas in town.

Around toward the south parking lot, marinated flank steak sizzles on steel-drum grills until it’s tough enough to go into tacos. Across a walkway, at the Tejuno booth, there are tostadas smeared with beans, garnished with lettuce and ripe tomato and topped with slices of tart pickled pigskin or tasty roast pork. Outside the El Texanito ice cream shop, a stand specializes in huaraches , which are tasty sandal-shaped patties of masa mounded with diced nopales (cactus), sour cream and peppery, crisp bits of extremely well-done meat.

The Alameda Swap Meet is the land of chile and lime, which are dribbled on freshly fried potato chips, sprinkled on popcorn, daubed on sliced mangos, squirted on the delicious ceviche and marinated-shrimp tostadas served at the El Bucanero seafood concession hard by the main building’s entrance. (As far as I know, there is no chile in any of the sweet, hospital-green limeade the vendors ladle out from iced glass demijohns, nor in the orangeade, nor in the cantaloupe drink.)

One popular dish here, served in several different places, involves chile, lime, mayonnaise, kernels of fresh corn and a generous squirt of Liquid Parkay, all mixed up in a cardboard bowl--sort of obliquely delicious in its own way, though not the sort of thing you’d smear on a slab of La Brea Bakery bread. You can also get corn barbecued in steel drums until it becomes corn-on-the-cob jerky, the sort of thing you can imagine chewing for the duration of a really long drive.

And you can always perform a scientific assessment of the state of flautas , those deep-fried rolled-tortilla things that Jack-in-the-Box calls taquitos, by rigorously testing each of the dozen or so varieties available: fat or thin; topped with sour cream or drenched in guacamole; brittle throughout or kind of bendy in the middle--check out the meaty ones in the far southeast corner. That’s my idea of pure empirical research.

Alameda Swap Meet, 4501 S. Alameda Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 233-2764. Open daily, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. (though many of the food stalls are open weekends only). No alcohol. Cash only. Take out. Lunch for two, food only, $3-$10 .


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